Moose Skowron, RIP: Quiet Suffering, Quiet Strength

When he was still a baby Yankee aspirant, Joe Pepitone had the pleasure of sitting next to Casey Stengel during a spring training game. Knowing Pepitone was a first base prospect, Stengel pointed toward Moose Skowron, the Yankees’ regular first baseman. “Watch this Mr. Skowron at first, Pepperone,” Stengel purred, using the malaprop by which he addressed the skinny Brooklynite.

In his self-lacerating memoir, Joe, You Coulda Made us Proud, Pepitone recalled the scene: As soon as Stengel advised him to watch the Moose, the Ol’ Perfesser dozed off. “Skowron moved like a dump truck,” Pepitone remembered, alluding to Skowron’s not-so-fast feet around the pad. But he picked a difficult throw over to first just in time to bag the hitter gunning it up the line.

At that split second, Pepitone swore, Stengel awoke. “Now, Pepperone, did you see how Mr. Skowron did that?”

“Holy shit!” Pepitone remembered thinking. “This guy is a genius—he can see in his sleep!”

That’s one story about Skowron, who died today of lung cancer at 81 in Illinois, and whose nickname had nothing to do with his muscular physique and everything to do with whom boyhood acquaintances said he resembled—Benito Mussolini—whenever his grandfather, who often gave the family their haircuts during hard times, gave him the customary shave-em-dry buzzcut. Or, with the scowl he wore in the batter’s box.

He once told Baseball Digest that he had to convince his grandmother nothing would be amiss when she heard the crowd chanting his nickname as he stepped in to hit. “When I played for the White Sox,” said, “my grandmother thought everyone in the crowd was going boo. I said, ‘No, Grandma, it’s all right. They like me. They’re saying Moose.’ She was so relieved.”

In truth, Skowron was a quiet, gentle man who sometimes had to cringe before doing his job. When the Yankees traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers (for pitcher Stan Williams) for the 1963 season, Skowron–who’d already helped the Yankees win seven pennants and four World Series, with righthanded power to balance the lefthanded power of Roger Maris and Yogi Berra, and the switch-hitting bombardment of Mickey Mantle—found himself on another pennant winner. He also found himself part and parcel of the Dodgers’ unlikely World Series sweep, the first time in twenty-seven other Octobers that a Yankee pennant winner ever got swept out of the Series.

At first, if you knew the details, you might have thought Skowron would have savoured a little revenge. When he was traded, Joe Pepitone—who’d been hectoring all during 1962 that he, Pepitone, would have Skowron’s job and soon enough—made good, at Mickey Mantle’s instigation, on one threat he’d leveled at the veteran. Skowron received a telegram after the trade: DEAR MOOSE: TOLD YA SO. JOE PEP.

Sandy Koufax may have hogged the headlines with his stupefying pitching performances in Games One and Four of the ’63 Series, but Skowron wasn’t exactly the strong silent type during the set. He hit .385 in that Series with a 1.044 OPS for the set, including a leadoff bomb in the top of the fourth off Yankee lefthander Al Downing in Game Two, helping Johnny Podres (who’d beaten the Yankees twice to win the only World Series rings ever worn by a Brooklyn Dodgers team in 1955) beat the Yankees, 4-1, in the park where Skowron flourished as a solid if not spectacular first baseman and slugger for nine major league seasons prior.

He’d also helped Koufax in Game One with two hits and two RBIS, the first of which sent home Frank Howard, who was aboard with a jaw-dropping double off the top of the Yankee Stadium scoreboard, in the top of the second. An inning later, he singled home Willie Davis for the third of five Dodger runs on the day. He managed one hit off Jim Bouton in Game Three (which went to Don Drysdale, 1-0).

And he had mixed feelings all the way. “I was miserable,” he told Richard Lally for Bombers: An Oral History of the Yankees. “Twelve years I was with New York, three in the minors, nine in the majors. I loved those guys, and it killed me to beat them. My uniform might have said Los Angeles. But in my heart I was always a Yankee.”

Lally heard from another source about Skowron’s value on the field. “[He] wasn’t someone you wanted to face too often,” said Frank Lary, the Detroit Tigers righthander who had an unusual knack for beating the Yankees almost every time he faced them during his prime. “He wasn’t just a big slugger trying to hit the long ball all the time. Smart hitter, went with the pitch, thought along with the pitcher, and could hit the ball the other way as hard as anyone. And Moose was underrated at first. He had real soft hands and could dig tough chances out of the dirt.”

The Dodgers thanked him for his contribution to their ’63 Series championship by selling him to the Washington Senators over the coming winter. The Senators shipped him to the White Sox in a deal involving no-names otherwise; he finished 1964 respectably and played a solid 1965 for the White Sox before tapering off to stay in 1966, his power mostly gone. Skowron was traded to the California Angels early in 1967, finishing his career quietly and almost forgotten.

In truth, Skowron throughout his career was dogged by injuries and self-doubt. He fretted more severely than many during slumps; he fought a constant battle with back issues; and, according to Peter Golenbock in Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949-1964, he was dogged over his final major league seasons by a very bizarre marital collapse.

Moose bestowed upon his wife more clothes, jewelry, and creature comforts than any one person had any right to expect. He was a dutiful husband and father, but like all baseball players, he had to be away from his family when the team was on the road. After eight years of Moose’s absences during these trips, his wife without prior warning began calling him in his hotel room at odd hours of the night, checking to see if he was there, accusing him of infidelity, while at the same time, tired of sitting around the house waiting for him to return, she decided to do some entertaining of her own.

Loyalty was very important to Moose, and when he lost hers, he could not accept what was happening to his marriage. “Why me?” he kept asking. “What have I done to deserve this?” Skowron was beyond consolation, though the other players tried to comfort him as best they could. The split between him and his wife became wider and her hostility intensified. Moose finally resorted to putting detectives on her trail; he was beside himself when the detectives sent him their reports on her activities . . . There wasn’t much he could do except to sue for divorce, a divorce he was granted in 1964, after he had left the Yankees.

Skowron eventually remarried happily enough and finished raising his family, while working as a salesman and promoter, including for for the White Sox at one point in those capacities.

Pepitone remembered rooming with Skowron on the road in 1962 and coming back a little late from a night on the town to discover Skowron had locked him out of the room. “Bed check’s at ten,” the conscientious Skowron said flatly. (“The Yankees,” Pepitone would remember, “almost never had bed check.”) During that season’s spring training, the Yankees liked to have boxing exhibitions between players for exercise and who knew what else. As Elston Howard flattened Jim Bouton, Skowron turned to Pepitone playfully and said, “Come on, Pepi, let’s you and I get in there.”

“Get lost, Moose,” the slender Pepitone replied to the muscular Moose. “There’s no way I’m getting in the ring with you!”

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